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City Lights:

A look back at high school

June 11, 2009|By Michael Miller

Putting together the Independent’s high school graduation package this week brought back a lot of memories — and a little sobering reflection.

I graduated from high school in June 1998. Ten months later, a pair of seniors shot up Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and America’s entire secondary education system seemed to go on trial overnight. For days after, I sat stunned in my dorm room at UC Irvine, reading articles that painted high school as a cruel, Darwinian world where jocks terrorized the commons and anyone different, smart or nearsighted was routinely body-slammed into lockers.

Reading those accounts and thinking back on my own high school career, I wondered if I had spent the last four years with my eyes closed. My school had the usual mix of characters, from linebackers to goths to computer wizards, but they rarely seemed to get into brawls with one another. A friend of mine often wore Beatles T-shirts to class and somehow avoided having chocolate milk poured down his shirt in the cafeteria. And while the homecoming football game drew a big crowd of admirers, so did the spring musical and the debate tournament.

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In the years since, a number of writers — especially Dave Cullen, who covered Columbine extensively for Salon magazine and recently published a full-length book — have discredited a number of the early reports on the massacre. It turns out that the Trench Coat Mafia, to which the killers allegedly belonged, was mostly a media myth; that the killers were not outcasts and had a wide circle of friends; and that while some students complained of bullying and jock worship on campus, many others found the school warm and welcoming.

In short, two people can attend the same high school and have vastly different experiences. After all, with thousands of kids on campus, most of their paths never cross at all. We kept that in mind when we assembled our graduation package.

To celebrate the class of 2009, we asked each school to recommend a student for a short profile. That student didn’t have to be the valedictorian, or the prom king or queen, or the kid with the highest grade-point average. Far from it. We sought students who had interesting stories to tell, and on any high school campus, there’s no shortage of those. The students we interviewed ran the gamut from award-winning actors to West Point hopefuls to foster teens who were saved by alternative education.

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